Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Breaking Bad and cliffhanger structure

Note: spoilers for this week's Breaking Bad and uninformed speculations on next week's episode follow.

This week's Breaking Bad ended on a helluva cliffhanger.  After being betrayed by his former protegee, Walter White was led into a trap and finally arrested by his brother-in-law, DEA Agent Hank Schrader.  For a few moments, viewers dared to hope that the ending could be so bloodless.  Hank and his partner tricked Walt to leading them to where he'd buried millions in drug profits.  However, this happened to be out in the middle of nowhere and Hank hadn't made this arrest an official DEA operation, so his own office had no idea where he was.

After savoring Walt's arrest, Hank called his wife Marie and told her "I got him."  It at last seemed over, and there was relief in his voice as he assured her everything was going to be okay now.  Before he hung up, he told her he loved her.

In TV/movie cliche terms, Hank might as well have said he had only two days to retirement, for he was giving off just about every other warning sign of being about to be martyred tragically.  Sure enough, the Aryans allied with Walt (long story) arrive on the scene.  They not only outnumber Hank and his partner, but they heavily out-gun them.  A shootout ensues and there seems to be no way that the Aryans don't have the upper hand.  It's hard to imagine a circumstance where they would allow Hank and his partner to live.

But let's speculate here: If the creators were out to shock us with Hank's death, the place to do that would have been to end the episode with him getting his head blown off.  That would have certainly had more impact in the final seconds of this episode than in the opening moments of next week's, right?

So perhaps we're merely meant to think that Hank is dead meat - hence the writers deliberately playing to the cliches by including that phone call to his wife.

Or is that just what they're expecting us to think?

So here's an exercise: think about what scenario allows for maximum suspense and the strongest impact when that tension is broken.

Here's what I think: the next episode will not open with the results of the shootout.  No, they're going to keep us in suspense as long as possible.  Hank being killed straight off at the top of the show wouldn't generate suspense.  If that was the intent, he'd have died at the end of this week's, leaving us to wonder "What's next?"

No, I think the purpose of the call to Marie was to set up the early part of the next episode to be told from her perspective.  Hours will pass as Marie's relief passes into concern after not hearing from her husband.  She'll go to the DEA and learn that Hank is missing and then will have to come clean about everything she knows about Walt's operation. 

This is where all the shit goes down: Walt's family brought in for questioning, his unassuming facade stripped away.  It hits the fan here - and yet we still won't know what happened to Hank.  Eventually, some trail will lead the authorities out to the site of the shootout.  We'll find Hank's partner's body first - but no sign of the Aryans, Walt or Jesse.  For a moment we'll have hope that Hank is alive...

And then we'll find him.  Dead.  He'll be revealed murdered just after we have cruelly been invited to hope otherwise.

From flash-forwards we know that Walt survives for at least another year, during which he returns home after a long absence.  He purchases a gun and it seems that revenge is on his agenda.  A popular theory has emerged that he's coming back to kill the Aryans, perhaps to rescue Jesse from them.

I don't think he's coming to rescue Jesse. I think he's coming to avenge him.

My supposition is that Walt and Jesse both get captured by the Aryans. Walt is in full "fuck you" mode.  The Aryans have just killed his brother-in-law, so he's not inclined to help him and Walt's cancer will do him in soon enough anyway.  It's over - the last episode saw to that.  He's also pretty pissed at Jesse so he's not going to stick his neck out for Jesse.

The Aryans kill Jesse.  Walt somehow gets away, licks his wounds for a year and then comes back to settle a score.  It wouldn't surprise me if most of that happens in the penultimate episode, leaving the final episode to explore all of the fallout from this.

So there's my crackpot theory.  Odds are I'm wrong about most of this - but I bet I'm on the scent of how the next episode starts.

What theories do you have?  In what way do you imagine the cliffhanger to be resolved and how will it be dramatically satisfying?


  1. Yes, I agree. We will be following Marie and Skyler at the beginning of the next episode. Vince Gilligan knows how to twist the knife.

  2. There's only one way this ends:

    final episode, Skyler goes all Ehrmantraut and takes out whoever is still standing: Jesse, Todd, Lydia, Saul, etc...

    But she saves Walt until last and in a callback to when Mike killed Chris, she finally corners him in their old house.

    Sitting opposite each other, as Skylar trains her gun on him, she orders Walt to throw over his pork pie hat.

    Confused, Walt does so then asks why and she replies that she doesn't want to get his blood all over the hat. Then, in a moment of extreme cathartic release she empties her gun into Walt's face.

    She gets up from her chair, picks up the hat and places it on her head. As she looks in the mirror to adjust the hat, she stares at herself then whispers: "Say my name".

    The Skylar in the mirror smiles back and replies: "You're Heisenberg".

    Fade to black.

  3. I'm happy these final episodes continue to engage us and keep us guessing about what will happen next. In contrast, Dexter (also in its final season), doesn't seem to be generating nearly as much attention or enthusiasm, although the stories aren't really that far apart in terms of what's at stake.

    1. Nice contrast. Dexter had so much narrative momentum going into its final season (LaGuerta fallout), and promptly lost it.

  4. Waves,

    I know that ultimately it does come down to personal taste but, imho, Breaking Bad *is* legitimately a better show than Dexter.

    And that's mainly because that each season of BB is undeniably better than the previous one, whereas while Dexter is coming strong in the final stretch, it did sag in the middle of its run which caused some people to dismiss it.

    In addition, BB really does feel to me like it embodies a new way of telling a story on TV: not just serial, but with a profoundly cinematic narrative continuity I haven't seen or felt in any other show except, maybe, Battlestar Galactica.

    Finally, while I think it deserves every accolade it gets, BB benefits greatly from the fact that AMC has become TV's answer to Miramax, i.e. the best and most effective awards season hype machine in the business.

    Moreover, this effect has been amplified as Vince and everyone else on the show and @ AMC have done an exemplary job of being involved in keeping the fire loaded and stoked.

  5. I think you nailed how they will begin the next episode. They did a similar thing after the ending of the episode with Jesse pouring gasoline in Walt's house. They drew out the tension of whether the house would burn (which was teased in the first scene at the beginning of the season) for as long as they could. I can see the rest of your theory happening too. But definitely the structure.

  6. It's a crying shame that truly great writers such as Vince Gilligan and his team are obligated to water-down their work with the many obligatory 'keep the female demographic happy' scenes.
    Skipping past angry Skyler stuff or weepy Marie stuff or confused Jr. stuff or whatever is frustrating, since all that wasted Relationships screentime could and would have been better filled with something something that wasn't annoying and dull.
    Ditto The Sopranos, with the endlessly tedious Carmela crap, and all the rest. Ditto too many other shows to mention due to the network's insistence on covering every base.

  7. Hank's death would be premature now. Who would replace him as a strong enough adversary with several episodes left? I don't think the Aryans will kill Jesse right away either and it would be interesting to see him and Walt cook at least one last time.

  8. Your plot instincts on Hank are precise -- and spot on. Hank got his moment: he finally cuffed Heisenberg, the devil who had haunted his existence all this time, but most importantly, he was allowed that phone call to shareit with his wife. The writers know the best way to twist the knife is to spin our expectations (to pick up with the gunfight minute one of the next episode), take the high Marie was left on, and tragically morph that beautiful love/relief into creeping fear, despair and...here's a corpse, hope you enjoyed that phone call.

    One of my all-time favorite BB devices was Jesse's early season 3 method of holding onto Jane's memory via her cell phone voice message greeting. It was perfectly sound in its mechanical sorrow -- sadly, Marie wasn't rolling tape. It will be interesting if Marie is capable of carrying the torch for her fallen husband by destroying Heisenberg's name (filling in the gaps for the DEA) AND saving her sister from Walt's inferno. With the news of Hank's death, will Skyler unclench her fists and reach out to her sister? Will it be too late? Will violence not only knock but finally move in to stay at the White household? The flash forwards seem to suggest so.

    I disagree regarding the fate of Jesse Pinkman. Vince Gilligan has mentioned the endings of Casablanca and M.A.S.H (television) in regards to BB's finale, which makes me suspect that despite the insane amounts of regret and bullets and blood, we will be left with some hope...and I think Jesse is it, via Walt swallowing his pride and doing what he can to set things right. There was a LOT of nuanced emotion in those looks between Walt and Jesse at To'hajilee. Jesse knows the significance of the spot; despite the fact he spit on the man who for a brief time was the father figure he so desperately needed (or perhaps because of it), Jesse knows Walt, in his core, is a family man. Jesse has become family dysfunctional and fucked up as it's gotten. Sometimes you lash out the ones who have seen you at your worst. And faced with gun-toting psychopaths, your "enemy" must sometimes become your ally if you wish to survive. I can see it playing out like this (not necessarily revealed in this order):

  9. Walt is allowed to leave by Todd & uncle Aryans for only one reason: Todd & crew are finally shown that DEA badge (pulled from Hank's dead body) at which time Walt vows to throw the DEA off their scent by running. Walt KNOWS and adds that he was tricked into revealing himself on the phone which Hank mostly likely recorded, which will be accessible by the authorities. Todd & uncles accept on one condition: the snitch and only other cook with the "blue" touch becomes their slave master chef. Walt happily agrees, feeling it's a fate worse than death for Jesse. Walt also probably believes he can spin a few more lies long enough to get Skyler and children to flee with him...

    But Walt is unable to hold onto his family when the truth is revealed. What is a fate worse than death? Being dead to your family. Skyler, Holly and Junior will most likely unite in the aftermath and curse the devil for leaving their lives in ruins....cut to:

    Walt with hair and a M60 in his trunk. Everyone knows of the infamous Heisenberg and his fall from meth kingpin glory. What no one but Walt knows is that Jesse is the one out there still getting his blue to the streets. I think Walt we will learn via Saul that Walt has contacted Lydia, Todd & thugs with a proposal. He has cooked the biggest, purest batch of blue the world has ever seen and promises to deliver it to reclaim his name. Only, when he delivers the shipment, it's not crystal...it's a truckload of fulminated mercury (ala Tuco) and Walt uses the M60 to blow it & Todd, uncles to hell. The ricin will go to Lydia.

    At this point Jesse is revealed to be a whisper of his former self, a shadow with eyes who is beyond shell-shocked and revenge hungry. Walt will tell him he's the only family he has left, that it's too late for him but Jesse can go to Alaska, can wipe it all clean. He'll beg Jesse to kill him but Jesse won't. He will leave Walt to waste away alone in the desert, where he'll expire in the sun and become like a tragic monument to hubris and regret.

  10. Pliny - I agree with you about the differences between Breaking Bad and Dexter, especially in terms of quality. I just meant that each series should have viewers completely sucked in as the conclusion approaches. Both main characters operate outside of the law and face an uncertain fate. But only BB remains as suspenseful and energizing as ever, while Dexter's swan song is, well...it seems like a lesson on how NOT to end a series.

  11. I thought for sure there would be a payoff with the spider in the jar. It's the only physical evidence linking Todd to Drew Sharp. But the show seems to have too much going on at the moment to involve that kind of police work. Something's up with Marie too. They spent the entire series setting her up as mentally unstable, time to pay that off. She mentioned something about poisoning Walt the other week too.

  12. If Hank dies, I would bet that Marie will `Break Bad` somehow.

  13. One thing I know about Breaking Bad: it's unpredictable.